Every Family in Heaven

Ephesians 3:14-15 is an odd passage:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

The obvious question raised by the passage is who are the families in heaven. There is no real consensus among commentators on the question. Some suggest that it refers to the Jewish people and the Gentles—the Jewish people as the family in heaven, the gentiles as those on earth. Others have suggested that families in heaven are the angels. Some have suggested that it refers to Christians here on earth, as well as believers who have passed on in death.

Given my interest in astronomy and science fiction, it should not be shocking to any regular reader that I am tempted to suggest that should we ever discover extraterrestrial civilizations, then Paul’s words here would be helpful. Something that theologians are likely to have to come to grips with at some point will be finding a way to accept the existence of such extraterrestrials and to fit them into our theological frameworks. I suggest that a passage like this from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians might be useful in this regard. After all, we need to think about how God would relate to non-human intelligence. Obviously (it seems to me) the Bible was written to and for human beings; it was not written for angels, it was not written for animals, and it wasn’t written for infants. Thus, the questions we might have about the ultimate fates of animals and infants, for instance, are not answered explicitly in the text. Likewise, the text does not deal with a question that is of interest to us in the twenty-first century, since the concept of other worlds and other beings living on them was not really something that Paul would likely have thought about or even imagined. The chances that Paul was thinking of alien beings is highly improbable from a historical or cultural context.

Nevertheless, I suspect that once First Contact occurs, this is one of the texts that will get used as we adapt to that new reality. Likewise, I suggest this passage will serve as an opening to a future theological/academic discipline: comparative Christianity. That is, I suspect that we will find analogues of Christianity in alien garb simply because I suspect that the only way to reconcile sentient creatures is for God to become one and die for them. If you think it impossible that God’s son could die an infinite number of times on an infinite number of worlds for an infinite number of species, I have a two-part question: first, on what basis is such a scenario impossible? I don’t believe the Bible addresses the question either way. Second, is God’s arm too short to save all life in the universe?

Assuming extraterrestrial intelligence piles on to another problem, if you would: the incredible naiveté of how most think about eschatology and the second coming. Already, thanks to space travel, the popular image of Jesus’ return is obviously not correct. Human beings have lived continuously in space for the last ten years (on the International Space Station); the ashes of two people are not on Earth at all and more are likely to follow, which complicates our picture of the resurrection: Eugene M. Shoemaker’s ashes are on the moon (they were deposited there by the Lunar Prospector space probe in 1999) and Clyde W. Tombaugh’s ashes are currently more than five astronomical units from Earth and bound for interstellar space after New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto in July, 2015.

As I’ve told my students, theology is mostly about our questions, not about the answers. Given an infinite, eternal God, there are more things we don’t know or understand than we do, or ever can. God and his relationship to us and the universe do not fit into tidy little boxes: there aren’t any boxes big enough. All we can manage is a bare outline, with few certainties, such as “God loves us.” And “we sinners have been reconciled to God through the death of Jesus on the cross.” Basic things. But there is so much else we are clueless about, and some of our certainties are likely wrong or at best incomplete and confused.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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